From Paula Deen to Trayvon Martin, the summer of 2013 has been tragically lousy with reminders that perhaps America’s biggest problem with race is that too many people can’t see a problem at all. For them, we might prescribe thrice-a-week doses of CBS’ Big Brother, which has been reflecting — and arguably contributing to — our racially charged moment.
A Mafia-like social game played in a house that’s part adult romper room, part fishbowl, Big Brother has long thrived on Us vs. Them dynamics and shamelessly solipsistic, swinish personalities. God bless ‘em. Like any reality franchise, BB needs these kinds of ”characters” the way sharks need chum. But in 22-year-old Aaryn, the show found an archetype with more bite than it may have bargained for: a Mean Girl who’s toxic with casual bigotry and shockingly indifferent to the damage. She immediately caused controversy inside and outside the house by making demeaning cracks about blacks, Asians, and gays. When she seized control of the house, her first action was to exile Candice (black), Helen (Asian), and Andy (gay) to ”The Have-Not Room” with Elissa for a week of crappy beds and slop for food. I doubt Aaryn is a white supremacist — and she denies being even a little bit racist — but damn if she didn’t play the part.
Big Brother slowly integrated this tension into the narrative, capturing some truly poignant human moments. After suffering Aaryn’s awfulness, Candice sought solace in another black contestant, Howard. She wanted retribution; he said they should grin and bear it. ”We just being smarter,” he said, looking like he wanted to punch someone — or even himself. ”We gonna play a game.”
As engrossing as Big Brother has been, the show can only create a narrative out of what the contestants give it. Upon taking power, the victims of Aaryn’s cruelty denied themselves and us justice by keeping her and tossing another bully, Jeremy. I hope BB enriches its storytelling by digging deeper into characters. An interview with Aaryn’s family, perhaps. Then again, it’s possible the show is wary of the very story line that has made this season so compelling. See: new disclaimers insisting the houseguests’ opinions aren’t shared by the network. Bogus. CBS is responsible for the content it puts in the culture; to simultaneously exploit the foulness of its contestants and push away from them is hypocrisy.
But Big Brother makes hypocrites of us all. Our sympathy for the aggrieved contestants clashes with our desire for heroes, villains, and dramatic conflict. Last week, the show gave fans the chance to nominate a contestant for eviction. While Judd did the dirty work and put Aaryn on the block with Kaitlin in the July 21 episode, if she survives, will we risk making BB less interesting by nominating her later? The choice is yours, viewers. Whatever decision we make will send a message about the culture we want, at a moment when doing the right thing has never felt more important. B